An Urban Pandemic: How COVID-19 Can Help Redesign Our Cities
The pandemic has been an eye-opener for the world's urban centers, and could be an opportunity to make lasting changes.
BUENOS AIRES — Coronavirus is an illness typical of the 21st century. It is global, travels fast, readily contagious and indiscriminate. It is a pandemic in keeping with our time, and here to remind us how close we all are in a hyperconnected world. Nothing is far, not even China.
Everything began, as we know, in the city of Wuhan. Then came propagation through other big cities, the Western press reported. Slowly, city living and related agglomerations of people came to be viewed with distrust. Demographic concentration, public spaces, public transport and traffic — all basic elements of city life — have become tools of contagion. Before the virus, our efforts were concentrated on planning social interaction. Now we're having to organize isolation.
The collective sentiment, a cornerstone of cities, is the virus's first victim. As a study published in the British review The Lancet has shown, the impulse to be outgoing has been replaced with harmful reactions like anxiety, anger and fear. "Induced" solitude is affecting us negatively. We were not born to be confined, and cities are a reminder of that. About 9,000 years ago, with the foundation of the first city in what is today Turkey, humans decided to have neighbors.
But we can also learn from difficult hours, and turn problems into opportunities. We may pass from pain to experience, and when the virus becomes a thing of the past, this will be a crucial challenge in policymaking. What lessons did COVID-19 leave us? That is when we shall, perhaps, see the difference between a ruler and a statesman.
We were not born to be confined, and cities are a reminder of that.
There is a lot of revision to do, in the "confined" space that is politics. The environment, for example. The Facebook group Venezia Pulita shows how Venetian canal waters have changed since quarantine began. Clear water, fish everywhere, wading swans and clear skies. These are some of the new postcards from Venice.
Something similar has happened in Beijing, where thanks to reduced factory activity, there is less smog, the sky is more visible and residents can breathe cleaner air. New York too: With less car traffic, birds can be heard in every corner. All of this in just 10 to 15 days without people driving around.
Another interesting aspect to consider is technology. Confinement has forced us to suddenly become familiar with terms like telecommuting. There is an automatic correlation in all cities, because as contagions increase, firms become more determined to have their staff work from home. This raises questions such as: How can a city reorganize itself if it decompresses the standard work and commute format? Hypothetically, what would happen if half the 3.5 million people who drive into Buenos Aires could work at home?
Remember, in this century nothing is far.
Healthcare is an unavoidable issue in this context. Every year, cities have to manage endemic, epidemic and pandemic events without proper hospitals. Coordination with national and provincial governments make up for this shortfall to some extent, but that means delayed decision-making that can leave vulnerable sectors without room for maneuver.
Security guards watching over a closed market in Dhaka, Bangladesh, during the lockdown. — Photo: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury
We need to speed up the paperwork, and remove as many institutional obstacles as possible. Security has the same dilemma: Highly complex problems like drug trafficking are being tackled with outdated means and strategies. The city of Rosario has already had 62 criminal deaths this year. No quarantine will stop organized crime.
The pandemic is revealing many of the fallacies of modern living. The speed of globalization demands a direction, fast, and laissez faire will no longer do. We need politicians with a proactive role, sensitivity and vision, and rulers that combine the market's energies with the state's capabilities and the rights of citizens.
In many cases across the world it was mayors who took the initiative with more drastic decisions, ahead of their national governments. This happened here, with Martín Yeza (Pinamar), Horacio Rodríguez Larreta (Buenos Aires) and Mariano Campero (Yerba Buena). These were examples of leaders who set the pace and were brave in protecting their communities through basic, protective measures like closing shops, traffic restrictions and organizing deliveries.
Without denying the demographic, environmental and economic challenges facing mega-cities like Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Tokyo, we need to reconsider our perspective on reality. Our habit is to think of solutions as a top-down thing. But this may be an opportunity to reverse the dynamic and take fate into our own hands — at the local level. As the self-schooled critic of cities Jane Jacobs observed, perhaps small should be the future.
*Delfino is the undersecretary for federal urban cooperation in the Buenos Aires city government.